It was clear from the outset that Rafael Nadal had the easy way to the Finals. The results yesterday merely confirmed that no decent challenger has stood in his way from the beginning. They also confirmed that Nadal will be very hard to beat.
It is easy to see why New Yorkers can take to Nadal. He is a fierce competitor whose demeanor often reminds one of a combination of two of the most famous taxi driver scenes in movies, both filmed in New York. He is like Ratso confronting the taxi driver in the film Midnight Cowboy, who says "Hey, I'm walkin' here!" And Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, whose entire demeanor seemed ready to explode in some weird, dangerous manner during the summer of the New York garbage strike and record hot temperatures.
The essence of Nadal was on display Thursday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Confronting a relative minor player in Fernando Verdasco, Nadal seemed to lose his DeNiro demeanor at the outset. Feeling out his opponent, a shaky start meant a game three wrestle with his nicer side, one which one confronts in some interviews when he can be gracious and sport one of the greatest smiles in sports. By game 10, the confrontation was over. Nadal scowled fiercely at his opponent and, as with so many times in the past, Ratso delivered his tough language. "Hey, I'm walkin' here." And the match was for all intents and purposes over.
The fact remains that with so much of the match yet to play, the millions watching knew it was over. Verdasco wilted in Nadal's glare, hitting back a few shots but generally feeling inferior.
This is not to take anything away from Nadal's brilliant display of tennis prowess.
Indeed, there was one "get" that could have been the best we have ever seen. Racing from well behind the baseline, Nadal reached what the audience must have been certain was an impossible shot from Verdasco. Like Superman, Nadal was a blur all the way to the ball. He then rapped it smartly for a winner, leaving Verdasco and the audience completely stunned. Verdasco looked like he had been felled by the bullet shot from Nadal's hot hand. By then, the match was clearly over.
With this latest massacre notched in the history books, we will look on this U.S. Open as the one that put all doubts to rest. Newly bulked up Nadal has become the most menacing tennis player of all time. Like Michael Jordan and Mike Tyson, Nadal is his sport's most intimidating force to play the game.
While Nadal is moving toward his inevitable match in the Finals, Roger Federer is bringing his own screenplay to the Open. More like Fred Astaire in Top Hat, and Peter O'Toole and Robert Donat in the 1969 and 1939 versions of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Federer seems a beacon of light in the midst of incredible competition and the typical darkness in which he plays working his way up to the Finals.
Floating above the court, never seeming emotional or mad, making light of serious situations, Federer looks and breathes "nice and kind" in complete juxtaposition with Nadal's darkness. Like the teacher in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, whose talents transcend the ages, Federer tells us watch now, and you will learn something. Watched by the tennis greats as a matter of pride, the best in the game savor every minute of Federer on the court. At this Open, Billy Jean King and other stars are taking in the last days of perhaps the greatest tennis player of all time. She says he hearkens back to another age, when brute force could not win by itself. Not making little of those players, but making certain she takes the trip down nostalgia lane for what could be one of the last times.
We have little doubt but that Top Hat dances are giving way to the painful goodbye that confronted Mr. Chips as his teaching career came to an end. And we have no doubt but that Federer will likely end his career as it started: with the calm charisma of someone who knows his place in history, and enjoys his place in it however anyone else will judge it.
We cannot predict the outcome of the match if they do confront each other in the Finals this year. But we can say that it is horrible seeding and a major problem with the 2010 Open that Federer has had to go through men he has beaten so often. Soderling was a risk to Federer's path to the Finals. Novak Djokovic is an even greater one. By now, everyone appreciates that unless the Nadal-Federer confrontation takes place, there will be an empty feeling that will predominate for years to come.
Do we not all feel that Djokovic should have faced Nadal, providing at least some pressure on him before the Finals?
Yet, when faced with the need for match toughness, we have to believe that Federer will be more ready for the Finals, with Nadal more rested.
If Federer manages to beat Djokovic, it will likely be only after he loses at least one set to him. And if that happens, Nadal will have the edge in the fifth set in the classic dual between the game's best two players.
Let the film roll!
Lights, camera, action!